Maple Leafs Slow Starts Create Un-Winnable Pattern

The most disappointing thing about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ recent losses is that they’ve been avoidable. The team simply didn’t show up to play, and that cost them. 

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They’d get behind; then, suddenly, when the circumstances of a game put them into a box, they put on some push and – almost – come back for a victory.

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The last road game against the San Jose Sharks was a case in point. Once again, the Maple Leafs started slowly, mounted a comeback from a 3-1 deficit, went on to tie the game at 3-3, then lost in overtime on future Hall of Famer Erik Karlsson’s breakaway goal.

Last Season’s Team Gave Us All a Sense of How This Team Should Win

Maybe last season’s strong team spoiled us as fans. Ironically, last season the Maple Leafs began to play well exactly a year to the day they lost to the Sharks in overtime on Thursday night. On October 27, 2021, the Maple Leafs came into Chicago and beat the Blackhawks by coming from behind when William Nylander scored an overtime goal for a 3-2 win.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes a save on Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

At that point, the team was 3-4-1. However, the team then went on a winning streak. Five weeks later, on December 1, the Maple Leafs beat the would-be Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche 8-3 on home ice on three Auston Matthews‘ goals. 

It was the team’s fifth-straight victory. At that point, what had once been a 3-4-1 record had not-so-magically turned into a 17-6-1 record. 

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It wasn’t magic how those Maple Leafs won. Last season’s team would begin a game usually by scoring the first goal and then throw down a stiff defence. They’d win ugly. For as much offensive power as the Maple Leafs had, they also learned to play a defensively-sound game. 

Playing Catchup Hockey Is Not the Maple Leafs’ Forte

In all the Maple Leafs’ games this season, how many times has the team held a lead after the first period in any of those games? Against the Arizona Coyotes, the Maple Leafs entered the third period behind 2-0. Against the Dallas Stars, the team entered the second period behind 1-0. Against the Winnipeg Jets, Pierre-Luc Dubois scored the game’s first goal. On Monday against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Maple Leafs went behind early by a 1-0 score. Against the Sharks, the Maple Leafs gave up a goal to Logan Couture 26 seconds into the game. 

Erik Kallgren Toronto Maple Leafs
Erik Kallgren, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That’s an unwinnable pattern. Because this season’s Maple Leafs’ team is slow off the mark, it doesn’t score first. Because it doesn’t score first, it can’t play the kind of stifling defensive hockey that pushes the opposition into mistakes the Maple Leafs convert in transition.

Being ahead in their games is what made last season’s team so powerful. It’s not rocket science what it takes for this team to win. The Maple Leafs simply need to score the first goal more often than their opponents. 

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Not scoring first means the Maple Leafs are chasing the score and not controlling it. The team simply isn’t playing to its strength. And, in the long run – and, by that, I mean the playoffs – it could cost them.

Offensive Zone Time Isn’t Always Productive

It’s probably a no-brainer that most NHL teams win when they go up a couple of goals, but it seems especially true of this Maple Leafs’ team. When they get behind and the other team throws down a box in front of its own goalie, the Maple Leafs don’t have the players who can get to the front of the net. John Tavares is one of a few who regularly set up in front of the opponent’s goalie.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs Center John Tavares screens Tampa Bay Lightning Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy
(Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Instead, the Maple Leafs piddle around on the outside of the opposition’s zone, where they use up a lot of time but create few high-danger chances. The team misses a large percentage of the shots it fires on the goal from the perimeter. As a result, playing catchup hockey is not what the Maple Leafs do best. For things to work in the Maple Leafs’ favour they must be done in a particular order. 

That order is out of whack for this team and needs to be fixed. 

The Maple Leafs Must Get Back to Winning 2-1

What will make this season’s Maple Leafs’ team good is not the fact that they have a high-octane offence. It’s that they have a high-octane offence that can be combined with a sound defence. Those two abilities allowed the team to lock games down when they had the lead. They became more of a 2-1 winner or a 3-2 winner. 

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The real issue for this team is that it’s not producing enough offence early enough in the game. This seems to be the pattern for this team in all its losses this season. 

Looking Toward the Postseason

While I don’t mean to look too far ahead, these are the kinds of games the team losses during the playoffs. They are also the kind of games that will be the tipping point between advancing or being eliminated from the postseason.

Time to as former Maple Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock would say, show up on time.